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Drones a Growing Part of Operations for Virginia County Police

The advanced drones used by the team in James City County can provide officers with a bird’s-eye view of everything from crime scenes and traffic pursuits to help searches for missing persons.

(TNS) — If you happen to see an unmanned air drone hovering somewhere overhead in James City County, Va., don’t be alarmed. It’s likely that the police department is in the midst of its monthly flight training.

In these specialized training sessions, a group of nine officers practice maneuvering the department’s four commercial air drones. The most recent session had officers flying drones both outside near Freedom Park and inside and around the county’s Law Enforcement Center on Opportunity Way.

The James City County Police Department’s drone program was established in 2020 and falls under the Tactical Field Force commanded by Sgt. Tiara Suggs. Whenever the tactical team conducts a training session, nearby residents might catch a glimpse of one of the department’s drones buzzing around in the sky.

“Our team is based in civil disturbance, but we also have a search and rescue component,” Suggs said. “We use drones for other things like high-risk search warrants and other things like that.”

The department’s tactical field team is trained to respond to civil disturbances, public demonstrations and other events that involve large or disorderly crowds. The search and rescue capabilities of the unit’s drone program allow the unit to be involved in other unique missions, such as searching for both citizens or suspects who have gone missing.

The advanced drones used by the team can provide officers with a bird’s-eye view of everything from crime scenes and traffic pursuits to search and rescue scenes.

Earlier this month, drone pilots were used to help search for a missing 16-year-old, Suggs said. The teen was later found. And just on Saturday, a drone was able to help a resident who got lost while walking in the woods.

“A drone was deployed and helped officers on foot find the individual and get them safely out,” Suggs said.

The drone pilots in Suggs’ unit have all received certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, which takes two months to complete. Passing the test demonstrates an understanding of various FAA regulations and technical flight procedures. Certification is renewed every two years.

The department’s indoor training involves navigating through randomly designed close quarters. The random layout, made up of gym mats standing upright, represents an apartment or a house that the pilot has never seen before. The search and rescue style training gives officers a chance to practice flying, searching for a dummy that the unit calls Bob. Once an officer finds the dummy, he retraces his route out of the course.

The intention is to be able to use drones to help in all parts of the department, including in crime scene and crash investigations, Suggs said.

“We want to integrate it into patrol, where we’re using drones more frequently on patrol,” Suggs said. “To send out a drone to give an officer just an extra layer of sight.”

The indoor and outdoor flight training allows officers to practice with the specific commercial drones and gear that they have at their disposal. All of the department’s drones and equipment are designed and manufactured by Chinese-based company DJI, which specializes in drones that can produce professional-grade imagery.

Officers also use wireless live streaming software designed specifically for drones called Axon Air, created by the same company that originally created tasers.

“There’s a lot of really large agencies that are really using these programs very well,” Suggs said. “DJI and Axon have a DFR, which is a Drone for First Responders program. They’re sending the drones ahead of officers. They’re saying, ‘Hey, I got a call for service for an overdose. The person’s passed out in his car. Officers are six minutes away, but I can get a drone there and observe what you’re seeing. Hey, no, he’s not passed out in his car. He was just reading down in the car. Now, you can disregard that officer.’

“That’s what agencies are using it for. They’re sending it ahead of its officers.”

The drones are capable of producing 4K quality video, and feature satellite GPS to log flights as well as to help pilots recover a drone if it crashes. Goggles specifically designed to work with the drones give a first-person view in high resolution.

The department hopes to continue to grow the drone program with more drones and more pilots, creating the necessary policies and procedures along the way, Suggs said.

“In 10 years when we start adding more pilots, we can (say) ‘Hey, we built this,’” Suggs said. “This is working because we said that it needs to work better.”

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